What Is A Drift Trike – And How Do They Work?

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Who said messing around on three-wheelers was just for the kids?

Adrenaline-pumping action might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the humble childhood classic, but drift trikes have fast become the toy of choice for daredevil kids-at-heart the world over.

If this all sounds a bit bonkers to you – that’s because it is.

Drift trikes are modified tricycles with low-friction rear wheels designed to skid through turns. There’s no real performance benefit – it’s just for fun!

To get you up to speed on all things drift trike, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is A Drift Trike?
  • What Is Drifting?
  • Marty Spellman: The Creator Of Drift Trikes
  • Drift Triking Today
  • Who Manufactures Drift Trikes?
  • How Are Downhill Drift Trikes Built?
  • How Can I Get Into Drift Triking?

Let’s get stuck in!

What Is A Drift Trike: Title Image

What Is A Drift Trike?

A drift trike is a tricycle with low-traction rear wheels designed to drift in turns.

Drift trike wheels are generally coated in PVC plastic and ridden over smooth concrete to drift best.

Kids’ drift trikes are sometimes made with caster wheels, so achieve the same drift effect, but with a little more stability and control.

The front wheel is larger with good traction for steering. The drift trike is controlled through the handlebars and brakes.

Drift triking is generally a downhill sport, though most drift trikes have freewheeling pedals mounted to the front wheel for momentum when needed.

Riders sometimes stand at the back of the trike and push with one leg, similar to a skateboard push, before moving into the trike’s seat.

There are a few global manufacturers of drift trikes, but DIY has been a big part of drift trike culture from the start.

Many customize or weld their own trikes together from scratch.

What About Electric Drift Trikes?

Alternately, electric drift trikes are built with engines that are controlled through a throttle at the handlebar, similar to a motorbike or go-kart.

Some can hit speeds upwards of 20 mph – which may not sound like much, but certainly feels quick when your bum is a few centimeters off the ground!

Electric drift trikes are typically powered through the front wheel, with a battery pack providing energy located on the rear axle.

Other drift trike variants include kiting drift trikes, which use a sail to harness wind power for propulsion!

A car drifting on an asphalt road at sunset.

What Is Drifting?

Unsurprisingly, drift trikes are designed to drift – unlike regular bicycles, go-karts, or cars, which are intentionally designed not to drift.

Drifting is basically the opposite of good cornering in conventional engineering. Let’s explain.

Drifting means the rear wheel or wheels lose traction during a turn and swing outward.

Once the rear wheels have lost traction and swung, the vehicle moves at a different angle to the direction of the rear wheels.

This is called a slip angle, or sideslip angle.

Unless you’re doing it on purpose, this is most likely to happen on a conventional bike when you’re riding on wet roads or gravel. It’s easy to fall off a bicycle when you lose traction at the rear wheel.

Because they have four wheels, cars are more stable in a drift.

A silver sports car drifts at a race track.

In the early days of road racing, car tires didn’t have as much traction as they do today, and rear wheels losing traction and swinging out was common.

In this instance the driver would either control the drift and close the slip angle, straightening up and completing the turn, or the car would spin out.

And then in the ’90s something interesting happened: drivers in Japan began to intentionally drift for sport.

Car tires are designed to grip and turn easily, so intentionally drifting a car means working against the car’s design. Drivers use rapid RPMs or the handbrake to force the rear wheels to lose grip and drift.

When drifting, drivers are able to take “non-ideal” lines through their corners, unavailable in a normal turn.

Drifting as a sport involves navigating corners through drifts. The more time spent driving at a slip angle the better.

But drifting a car in a controlled manner is very, very hard to do. Not to mention dangerous!

But drifting doesn’t have to just be for stunt drivers: the rest of us can experience the thrills of drifting on a drift trike!

Rather than using difficult and dangerous techniques to force regular tires to lose grip in corners, drift trikes are built with rear wheels that do it for you.

Drift trike rear tires are often coated in low-grip PVC plastic, so as the trike turns the back wheels quickly lose grip and enter a slip angle.

From there it’s a balancing act of steering the front wheel into the turn to manage the drift and complete a turn without spinning out. This can get pretty crazy on long snaking downhill roads and switchbacks.

But how did drift triking begin?

Marty Spellman: The Creator Of Drift Tikes

The story of drift trikes begins in Los Angeles in 1974 – long before Japan’s drift explosion – with a thrillseeker named Marty Spellman.

As LA’s surf culture spilled out of the sea and onto the streets, alternative sports like skateboarding and street luge were born.

While the Z-Boys were making skate history at Del Mar and early street lugers hurtled down Signal Hill, Marty Spellman and his adrenaline junkie friends were inventing their own way to “surf” the streets by racing down a hill in LA’s Hillcrest Park on kids “Big Wheel” trikes.

After destroying enough of the plastic trikes, Spellman set himself to building something more durable.

Soon the whole group was riding Spellman’s trikes down the larger, faster hills of Malibu. Drift triking was born.

Spellman’s design fused “Hot Cycle” wheels to handlebars and a seated frame designed with two down tubes.

This silent archival footage available on Youtube captures the proto Drift Trikers and the mood of the time: creativity and fun.

The LA Times ran a profile on the group in 1975, and Spellman remembers once giving a judge a good laugh after being summoned to court for traffic offenses on a trike!

Popularity for this fledgling sport grew and the LA downhill triking community soon grew outside of Spellman and his friends.

Drift Triking Today

Drift triking is perhaps most popular in New Zealand, where the sport found new life as part of the country’s racing and drift culture.

Today downhill drift triking is popular around the world, particularly in South America, Australia, the United States, and Canada.

Drift trike festivals happen around the world and some professional crews have corporate sponsorship, such as Red Bull’s Drift Trikes Whangarei crew.

Check out this downhill trike event hosted by Red Bull on the switchbacks of the mighty Serra do Rio do Rastro in Brazil, or this 2019 race footage captured on a GoPro!

Who Manufacturers Drift Trikes?

If you’re looking to dip your toe into drift triking, without getting the welders out and building your own, there are a few manufacturers who offer high-quality drift trikes.

Trek was an early adopter of drift triking. The Trek MOD was the gold standard when it first entered circulation. Trek’s MOD wheels are still a favorite for custom builds.

Today, with more manufacturers than ever to choose from, Razor is a good place to start.

Razor is best known for trick scooters, and they brought their engineering and manufacturing quality into the world of drift trikes with the Razor DXT.

Triad is another well-respected manufacturer in drift triking, currently offering Underworld and Syndicate trikes. Huffy and Airwalk also have strong lines of their own.

For kids’ trikes, there are a lot of manufacturers bringing high-quality drift trikes to market.

EzyRoller and Huffy have good kids’ ranges with caster wheels, and MPG and Sullivan make good kids’ trikes with conventional wheels.

Local Motors were the first manufacturer to bring adult electric drift trikes to the market, and today Drift Trike Factory and Wolftrike are considered among the best.

However, true to Spellman’s original DIY ethos, many drift trikers like to build their own trikes.

How Are Downhill Drift Trikes Built?

Building a drift trike is exciting and rewarding, however, it requires some specific tools and materials.

The process basically goes as follows:

A steel BMX bike is chopped up so just the front half is left: handlebars, forks, wheel, brakes, and the down tube.

The front half of the BMX is then drilled or welded to a custom-built steel frame. Freewheeling pedals are then installed on the front wheel.

A rear axle is then mounted to the steel frame. Go-kart axels are usually used, though the drift trike wheels will need to be specially sourced.

Alternatively, go-kart wheels can be used. By deflating the wheels, slipping thick PVC plastic films over the top, and then reinflating, the same effect can be achieved.

The seat is generally steel, and also tends to be lifted from go-karts.

Whilst the design is fairly straightforward, the metal working will be tough for a beginner, and you’ll want to be sure you’ve got everything right before riding a homemade drift trike downhill at speed!

How Can I Get Into Drift Triking?

Drift triking is a buzzing sport to get into for any budding adrenaline junkie!

Whilst not as popular as other downhill sports like skating or street luge, there are communities all over the world, and getting started can be as straightforward as buying a trike and finding a good hill.

So get out there and burn some rubber (or PVC!)

Enjoyed this guide? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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One of BikeTips' experienced cycling writers, Riley spends most of his time in the saddle of a sturdy old Genesis Croix De Fer 20, battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him with his nose in a book.

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